Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Through all the horror of the pandemic, something unexpected has happened: The last 18 months have been perhaps the most accessible period in American history for people of all abilities. Covid restrictions and safety measures forced nondisabled Americans to expand the public use of outdoor spaces and also invest heavily in remote access for work, education, entertainment and other social institutions and encounters of all kinds.
Now as we continue to lurch into this next stage of life in the US, whatever comes of the virus and its mutations, societal pressures are everywhere to try to re-assert a pre-pandemic sense of normal.
What happens now to all that access? The bosses are calling us back to the office. Teachers are being told they must teach in person. Cars are filling the streets once shut down for people. We need to hold on to our flexible, hybrid world, in work, school and play, wherever possible.
Work and school are the most fraught spaces. The abrupt shift to virtual work meant that disabled employees, instead of having to fight through diagnoses and human resource systems for reasonable accommodations, could take advantage of remote work becoming the norm. This shift sparked considerable justified resentment for those who have long been saying this could be done, but 18 months in, we’ve settled into a system where we’ve proven that office work can largely be done remotely.
What’s more, access has been enjoyed not just by people who need it for diagnosable disability reasons, but as always happens when we prioritize accessibility, lots of people have benefited. Some folks find being at home more enjoyable or productive, others have used it to avoid hostile work environments. I’m always concerned about people who have disabilities, but may not feel it’s worth going through often-adversarial HR procedures to get accommodated or who may not even know they are disabled.
For example, I have a specific trigger for my anxiety disorder when driving home in the afternoons. It’s not debilitating, but I’ve been happy to skip commuting these last 18 months. But now, a lot of employers are going to try and yank us back to the office, rather than empowering workers to determine the conditions of their work (while managers help employees be mindful of how those decisions impact others). Some people will quit; not everyone can. Do we really have to have this fight again?
This is also true for school. I’ve written a lot about how my son found online learning inaccessible (thanks to the lack of supports our district offered), but for many disabled kids, shifting to a universally online delivery brought a classroom community in reach. And just as with work, some people who aren’t disabled or perhaps didn’t think of themselves as disabled have found enormous positive aspects – including avoiding racism and bullying in the schoolyard and workplace has been a particular benefit.
While overall online learning has not been optimal at the K-12 level, I’ve certainly personally witnessed many students at my university finding having at least a few high-quality online courses transformative in terms of how they learn and how they balance work, life, and study. “Hyflex,” a Frankenstein pedagogy where teachers try to teach simultaneously online and in person, is a disaster, but delivering education in a variety of modes ought to stay the norm.
The situation isn’t all about virtual contact. Physical public spaces have also changed in ways that benefit access. During the pandemic, New York City, for example, closed many streets to cars in order to provide more space for walking and outdoor entertainment. It was a big win for restaurants looking for outdoor seating (not to mention companies that rent scooters and bikes), but it also made the public spaces more accessible to a wide variety of users.
When you don’t default to prioritizing cars (though some cars are vital for many disabled individuals) new ways of thinking about the urban use of space become possible. As cars return and streets closed off during the pandemic are reopened, we might lose those possibilities – especially if restaurants try to hold onto their turf on the sidewalk, shrinking passageways for everyone else.
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The disability story of Covid-19 is still being written. Every week, we’re learning more about the disabling consequences of long Covid, which as disability leader Rebecca Cokley has frequently commented, is resulting in the biggest expansion of the disability community since polio. This week marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that created new tools allowing disabled Americans to fight for access. But we shouldn’t have to fight so hard, so often.
All decisions around access create tradeoffs. What works for one person might harm another
I’m not saying the answers are simple, but I am saying that the reflexive backlash against the adaptations to the pandemic aren’t the way to go. We can prioritize multimodal systems, flexibility, more universal design. A crisis like Covid opens the way to imagine a different world, different ways of doing things; but we’ll only achieve it if we choose do. Progress doesn’t just happen on its own.